I sat down recently to think about what books still remain my favorites over a lifetime, and why.
Jane Eyre: plucky, independent heroine who refuses to compromise her values in the face of overwhelming odds. Religion plays a stronger role than I would like, but at least Bronte makes a case for genuine vs. fake belief.
Pride and Prejudice: plucky, independent heroine etc. minus the religion.
Precious Bane: This heroine is less plucky, bends herself to her brother's will, has been sidelined by a hare lip; nevertheless finds love, more because of the insightful weaver who sees her true character rather than something she does. Prue is faithful, self-sacrificing, empathetic. Bonus points for the language.
To Kill a Mockingbird: Hard to separate Atticus Finch from Gregory Peck. (No wonder "Lawrence of Arabia" lost at the Oscars that year.)
Cold Comfort Farm: another plucky, independent heroine hemmed in by financial circumstances who takes charge of a dysfunctional family and sorts them all out. I like the over-the-top riff on Thomas Hardy. Bonus points for the delightful characters (Great Aunt Ada Doom, the depressed Judith, her sexy son Seth, the elvish Elfine, the devilish sukebind) that humanize the parody. I like the fact that at all times Flora Poste knows exactly what she's doing. There's a rational, clever mind at work with not an iota of religious underpinnings.
Dorothy Dunnet's Lymon Series: a clever adventurer whose character as a quixotic anti-hero who turns out to be deeply self-sacrificing and heroic is the anchor to this historic saga. Bonus points for the absence of historical anachronisms. I love the surprises; and the roof-walking.
The Lord of the Rings: Of all the alternative-world-building extravaganzas of the imagination (that include Dune, The Dunwich Horror, Justin Cronin's vampire trilogy, and Cloud Atlas) the Tolkien world of Middle Earth populated by hobbits, elves, dwarves, orcs, and wizards excels at building a world from the ground up and embedding the strange in the familiar and vice versa. The passage of time and the inevitable decay is the background that makes love and sacrifice bright by contrast. The passage that still makes me cry: when Strider/Aragorn leaves Lothlorien and returns never again as a living man.
John McPhee: anything. Also in the nonfiction vein, Stephen Jay Gould, Oliver Sacks, Lewis Thomas, Hans Zinsser's Rats, Lice and History, A Sand County Almanac, James Prosek's Eels, J. Henri Fabre's The Insect World, Marilyn Johnson, The Dead Beat, and the incredibly befuddling/delightful Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonders. Who needs fantasy when the real world is so mysterious? Beautiful language, imaginative leaps that subvert expectations of what is "normal."
Craig Childs, The Secret Knowledge of Water: captures my memories and imaginings of the southwest.
The poets: Dylan Thomas, Kay Ryan, Terrance Hayes, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes (Earth-Owl), W.H. Auden, Wallace Stevens, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Edward Gorey, Grooks. Sound and sense, the beauty of meaning in the beat, the surprise.
The word crafters: the incomparable Strunk and White's Elements of Style (the illustrated version); Mary Norris's Comma Queen; Lynne Truss's Eats Shoots & Leaves (if just for the title); Anu Garg's Word a Day; the Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus; Ammon Shea, Reading the OED; the OED.
Visuals/children's books for their beauty and surprise: Shaun Tan, The Arrival; Sowa's Ark; Pish Posh Hieronymous Bosch; Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
What is not on my list? Middlemarch (tedious; trapped female); Edith Wharton (more trapped females); a lot of Virginia Woolf (although I loved A Room of One's Own); anything by Roth (narcissistic) and almost everything by Hemingway (misogynist). I hate weak women who are victimized by rape. I dislike unreliable narrators (I'm spending time in this world, and I want it to be reliable).
Almost on my list (I liked them but wouldn't race to the bookshelf to read them again): Dr. Zhivago (everyone trapped); Moby Dick (loved the details like whale dissection and floating coffins but couldn't identify with the Quest); a lot of books that make me sad (all of Carson McCullers and Penelope Fitzgerald, Brian Doyle's Mink River, and Richard Adams's Girl in a Swing, I'm looking at you).
The secret list of books I reread for fun but won't admit to being "Great": The Daughter of Time; numerous science fiction writers including Anne McCaffrey (Dragons of Pern and Ship Who Sang series), A.E. Van Vogt's Slan and others, George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones, Max Brooks's World War Z, Ursula LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness; anything by Raymond Chandler, Graham Greene, Rex Stout, Lee Child, and Carl Hiaasen; The Scarlet Pimpernel, Prisoner of Zenda, and Day of the Triffids.
What are the whys that explain my attraction? Plucky, independent females are numerous here, but so are plucky, independent men. Themes of the outsider, honesty, determination (oh, I forgot True Grit), empathy, compassion, the large view, close attention to facts, beautiful language, and the element of surprise.